The rookie run of the 14-year, $10.8 billion NCAA tournament teaming by Turner Sports and CBS has netted some nice Nielsens.
With each game in its own national window — courtesy of Black Rock, TBS, TNT and TruTV — for the first time in the 73-year history of various iterations of March Madness, the 2011 tourney has averaged 9.4 million watchers to date through the regional finals on March 27, 11% ahead of last year’s 8.5 million on CBS to stand as the most-watched since 2005.
All told, an estimated 99.9 million viewers have watched some part or all of the tournament this year through the regional finals, according to a Nielsen cume study. That’s up 11% from the 89.6 million on CBS alone in 2010 and surpassed the 95.6 million through the same stage of the 2005 event, which had scored the best of these marks over the past decade.
Will those advances tumble down because of the lowest-seeded national semifinal game ever? In a battle of Davids, Shaka Smart’s 11th-seeded VCU Rams, the Southwest region champs, will take last year’s finalist, No. 8 Butler, the survivor of the Southeast.
Some pundits have predicted a ratings airball of sorts because office pool brackets are busted everywhere, the teams lack collegiate hoops pedigree (can I get an amen, Billy Packer) and that Butler almost did it last year.
Well, this mid-majors matchup should be the culmination — if not coronation — of all that we love about March Madness and its exciting machinations that have slain favorites everywhere.
Would it be better if the Rams and the Bulldogs — Brad Stevens has taken his breed further the past two tourneys than Mark Few’s Gonzaga crew has even gone — were vying against the other semifinalists, UConn and Kentucky?
That way a pair of underdogs would be battling college hoops royalty of historical and more recent vintages with the Wildcats and Huskies (don’t snicker too loudly about the NCAA’s issues with the two Coach Cals), for a chance to meet for the national championship, in the ultimate screening of Hoosiers.
For the record, here’s what CBS is chasing from last year: an 8.6 rating and 14.5 million watchers for Butler’s win over Michigan State in the opening semifinal, which was up 10% from the 2009 match between Michigan State and UConn and a 9.2 and 15.8 million for Duke’s defeat of West Virginia in the nightcap. That was up 8% from the prior-year’s pairing of UNC-Villanova. Butler’s heart-breaking loss to Duke in the title tilt prompted a 31% gain over UNC-MSU to a 14.2 rating and 23.9 million viewers.
Hopefully more than a few million casual fans around the country will join the rest of us March Maniacs at 6:09 p.m. on April 2 to check out the Cinderellas in action. It might be worth sticking around for the UConn/Kentucky bout, too. One can only take heed of Clark Kellogg’s expected warning to Reliant Stadium boothmates Jim Nantz and Steve Kerr to strap on your seatbelts, partners.